At War With PTSD: Battling Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with Virtual Reality



The desert wind was picking up as we drove down the main road between the airport and Baghdad. The drive had otherwise been quiet, with only the rumble of the Humvee’s diesel engine vibrating through the floorboards. To my right, a statue of Saddam Hussein stood lonely in an otherwise empty stretch of desert. Sand kicked up by a mixture of the weather and the wheels of the convoy made it diffcult to make out the stone face, so we drove by unaware of whether the dictator’s eyes focused in our direction.

A boom in the distance sounded like a mortar, but my ears were not good enough to tell whether it was friendly or hostile. Smoke rose from the horizon. The Black Hawk helicopter that had escorted us on our path rushed off noisily, presumably going to investigate. The helicopter’s departure left us without air cover as we approached an overpass. The whole situation made me nervous, but then so did just about everything here.

As Dr. McCoy might say, “I’m a doctor, not a combat Marine.”

They say you never hear the sound of the gunshot that kills you, but two seconds later, another shell came in with a boom and howl of death. I did not feel the vehicle take the brunt of the impact, but a long crack appeared in the windshield.

The Humvee that had been in front of us seemed to vanish, replaced by a smoking heap of rubble. The sound of gunfire was everywhere, interspersed with the loud radio chatter narrating the chaos around us.

“Fire coming in. Fire coming in. One vehicle down. We are in an ambush.”

“Are you requesting backup?”

“We are requesting backup! Open fire!”

“Roger. Take evasive action as friendly fire comes in.”

I instinctively ducked as something whizzed by, seemingly inches above my head. The world disappeared momentarily into the quiet blackness of the Humvee’s interior. When I looked up, we were surrounded.

Two men, their faces wrapped in scarves, were standing not fifteen feet from the side of the road. They stood fixed, almost comically
exposed, their only defense a suicidal offense of blazing guns.

Why were we not shooting back?

The Humvee barreled on, passing within inches of the gunmen, who did not flinch. The whole world turned green, and the Iraqis seemed to flash back and forth between two positions in front of and behind our vehicle.

They hovered there, an endless loop.

“The software still has a few glitches,” said Dr. Jim Spira as I took off the headset and returned from virtual Baghdad to the quiet of his San
Diego offce.

I shrugged. “I’m sure you can fix the bugs, but I still don’t understand how this virtual reality stuff is going to help combat veterans get over
post traumatic stress disorder.”


Sceens from the Humvee simulator

Graphic Image

The Humvee simulator


Dr. Johnston in the Virtual Reality Simulator


Chapter 2

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